English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




Link Library




Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




      ***    22. Aphra Behn    ***



Romance in a slave colony
Vol. 1C pages 2267-2269 & 2278-2321
Longman 3rd ed
"Aphra Behn" and "Oroonoko"

An online text of Oroonoko is available from eserver


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings or make notes you will find useful on the final essay Some other journaling ideas for today include:

In Oroonoko, is Behn confessing her complicity in the dark events in Surinam? Is she showing the superiority of a black prince to whites? Is she simply telling a tale with sensationalism that she thinks will sell? How can we know what her motives were for writing this story?

We now have seen various British writers confront non-Europeans. How do Behn's Indians and slaves compare with Thomas More's Utopians? And what about Arthur Barlow's and Captain John Smith's native  Virginians? Or Raleigh's Guyanan's?

How does Behn's Surinam compare with Raleigh's Guyana? Do you think that Raleigh and Behn have different views of the British empire?

Compare the triangle of Oroonoko's grandfather-Oroonoko-Imoinda with a previous love triangle we have seen in the course, such as Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere or Orsino-Cesario-Olivia.






See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

Adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature
(New York: Longman, 2003)

Courtly writers in the 17th and 18th centuries took further the exploration of sexuality begun in medieval and early modern romance.  Feminism can be said to have begun in this period--not in popular writing (certainly not in Protestant or religious writing) but in coterie writing, private circulation of manuscripts among aristocratic women. Aphra Behn (1640-1689) and other coterie writers shared a commitment that women’s intellectual and spiritual abilities were equal to men’s, if different from men's, and ought to be given voice. For examples, see the perspectives section in our anthology (pp 2327-2345).


Behn's grave in  Westminster Abbey where Virginia Woolf wants the fllowers.







Behn's poems
Mrs. Aphra Behn
The irreverence of the Restoration era is almost nowhere more apparent than in Behn's sexually explicit poems. They are among the reasons why the Victorians censored her, and why her fame has been restored only recently, in feminist times.

The Disappointment” (p 2269) uses conventional military imagery to set up tensions of sexual power. Lysander seems all powerful: Chloris can “defend herself no longer”; she “wants power”; she admits “the conquest of [her] heart.” He is “unused to fear” as well as “capable of love,” and looks on her nearly naked body as “The spoils and trophies of the enemy.” It is a mock-heroic encounter, however. The military build up makes Lysander's impotence all the more embarrassing.

In “To Lysander at the Music-Meeting” (p 2274) Behn reverses the usual terms of the (male) gaze, visually and descriptively eroticizing the female. Here the beloved object is a sexy young man in a suggestive pose.

In "To the Fair Clarinda Who Made Love to Me" (p 2277) the subject is lesbianism. As the introduction to Behn’s works in context mentions, shaping the poems as letters (to Lysander, to Mr. Creech [p 2275], to the fair Clarinda) gives them an almost voyeuristic intimacy for the reader, who seems to be reading the private, explicit love letters of a stranger. The confessional nature of the poetry carries over into the "true history" of Oroonoko.




Left: poet, playwright, journalist Mrs. Aphra Behn (1640-1689).




Oroonoko title page

Fact or Fiction?
Here's all the conventional stuff of a modern best seller: action, adventure, romance, beauty, horror, treachery, exoticism, and familiarity. Critics generally classify this innovative work among early novels in its “real life” context of  vividly rendered physical and psychological detail, and (often) plausible dialogue.

But Behn proposes that Oroonoko is a recollection of actual events and stories actually told to her in about 1663 or 1664. It is unprecedented in its disturbing portrayal of gender, class and race. The story “examines what it means to be powerless in a society where, despite Christian pretenses and protestations, power is everything” (George Starr, “Aphra Behn and the Genealogy of the Man of Feeling,” Modern Philology 87:4 [1990]: 362).

Behn in fact may have been the daughter of a lieutenant-governor of Surinam--for certain she visited there--so she indeed may have been present at some of the events she describes, possibly could have heard about other events from participants. The narrator repeatedly claims that she was an “eyewitness” to much of the story, and the rest she fills in “from the mouth of the chief actor,” Oroonoko himself, or his French assistant.  Oroonoko was sold to the overseer of the plantation where she stayed, so she came to know him, to establish friendship and trust—and eventually to become the “female pen to celebrate his fame.” This is what the narrator says, despite the story's unrealistic details like Oroonoko's admiration by the men that he sold into slavery (p 2300-2301). Readers have often doubted the truth of the story, but an alternate source for Oroonoko never has been proposed.

Readers also have questioned the complicity of the narrator in the slave trade (what is she doing in Surinam?), and in Oroonoko's tragedy. At two points her absence seems tied to Oroonoko’s fall: (1) when he calls the slaves to revolt, “all the females [flew] down the river” in fear, and (2) when Oroonoko’s capture is marked with a vicious cruelty, the narrator supposes she would have had “authority and interest enough . . . to have prevented,” except for her absence. Given promises by Trefry and the servants to guard Oroonoko's life, she leaves. Then Trefry unexpectedly leaves too, on a mission for the evil governor. She notes: “I was no sooner gone, but the governor . . . forcibly took Caesar, and had him carried to the same post where he was whipped,” to be  dismembered and executed.

Where did she go? Why? How could she not foresee that Oroonoko would be executed? How could she have prevented the execution, even had she been present, given Oroonoko's killing of his wife, his unborn child and several guards, not to mention wounding the governor, himself and others? The Stuart idea that a king is above the law is at play here. Behn's royalist loyalties appear to have blinded her to her hero's bad character and misdeeds.

Nonetheless, the evils of the slave trade are vividly portrayed.  Oroonoko is a classic of the abolition movement, decades prior to the popularity of that movement and a century before the outlawing of slavery first in Great Britain (1772) and then throughout the British  empire (1809). Behn must have assumed that this work would be controversial. She was never one to shun controversy.




Oroonoko the book in its original cover



Royalist elements
Behn as character in the story exposes the white men’s uncivilized corruption and immorality, by contrasting their behavior with that of her noble hero. She sympathizes entirely with Oroonoko and against his captors: “Like him, she arrives a stranger in Surinam but is immediately recognized as superior to the local inhabitants; like him, she appears a shining marvel when she travels to the Indian village; and like his words, hers are always truthful. . . . [A]s the story moves forward, narrator and hero polish each other’s fame” (Gallaher, Nobody’s Story, 68). Behn's empathy for the heroic black noble is everywhere apparent in her praise of him and denigration of his adversaries, both black and white.

To Behn the royalist, Oroonoko's tragedy is reminiscent of the execution of Charles I and the helplessness of the last Stuart king, James II who fled from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the same year as the publication of Behn's book. Like many 17th and 18th century writers, Behn in the end puts herself as writer in a position of final and immortalizing authority: “Yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive all ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.” She seems to be attesting to the end of the era of kings.

It seems much more important to Behn that Oroonoko and Imoinda are aristocratically born than that they are black. They do not think like slaves or act like slaves. Their noble bearing is what Behn finds most positive about them. Their behavior conforms to European traditions of romance and chivalry; their features are European, apart from pigmentation and tattoos, and for much of the story, racial characteristics entirely disappear: Behn's racial remarks are pointed against whites for dishonesty, cruelty and hypocrisy in posturing as masters.



William Blake "A negro hung by the ribs from the gallows" (1792) indicates the growth of abolitionism in the 18th century.

The African slave trade was not outlawed  in the British Empire until 1807, more than 100 years after Behn's lifetime.




Mythic elements
The characterization of Oroonoko is part of the 17th and 18th interest in the basic nature of human beings. Oroonoko and Imoinda, along with their vast European sophistication (Oroonoko is learned in many arts and sciences and speaks several languages), are classic models of the “noble savage.” This text belongs to a tradition of commentaries and satires on the human condition as European “civilization” has corrupted it, versus “the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin.”

Behn's lying English governor takes the place of Satan, the one who brings dishonesty to paradise. "The Indians, believing only death would keep a man from his word, mourned for the death of the governor who promised to come; when he finally showed up, not dead, they asked: “what name they had for a man who promised a thing he did not do? The governor told them, such a man was a liar, which was a word of infamy to a gentleman. Then one of them replied, ‘Governor, you are a liar, and guilty of that infamy.’ They have a native justice which knows no fraud, and they understand no vice, or cunning, but when they are taught by the white men.”






Oronooko was later made into a stage play, as shown in this flier from 1776. (In the play, Imoinda is white, a reflection on Shakespeare's Othello.)




Aphra Behn at Luminarium includes a list of links to works:

Aphra Behn Society homepage 

Aphra Behn at Lit-Arts

U Texas Aphra Behn: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/rww02/AphraBehn/index.htm

Annotated Bibliography of Oroonoko Jack Lynch

PBS Online: Africans in America:

Women writers from England


If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

Aphra Behn





Mrs. Behn's portrait cir. 1675 by Mary Beale, a renowned portrait painter of the 17th century.


 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess